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Native plants encourage wildlife in the garden

When landscaping for wildlife, look to wildflowers to attract butterflies, hummingbirds, and more.

By Dean FosdickThe Associated Press / October 16, 2009

Flower fanciers have generally forsaken native plants over the years for the fashionable and the flashy, but the robust perennials are quickly becoming garden chic and the center of an ongoing conservation campaign.

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The handbook of the natural landscape movement may be Douglas Tallamy's "Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens" (Timber Press), which brings into sharp focus the relationships between plants and wildlife.

"Plants generate the food for all the terrestrial life on the planet," said Dr. Tallamy, a professor and chair of the department of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware, in an interview.

"Insects and birds are disappearing because we're starving them with the wrong kinds of plants when we landscape," he said.

It's understandable that people want new and different kinds of plants for their gardens, but alien species don't contribute much, if anything, toward the care and feeding of wildlife, he said.

"Insects are not adaptable. Their physiology is locked into the plants with which they've co-evolved," Tallamy said. "It's like the monarch butterfly gets its nourishment primarily from milkweeds. If we start spraying all the milkweeds, the monarchs can't simply go off and start feeding on oak trees."

Miriam Goldberger, who with her husband, Paul Jenkins, owns and operates Wildflower Farm Inc. near Coldwater, Ontario, puts it another way: "A lot of my hybridized plants are like junk food compared to the natives. They don't have much dietary value."

But one person's wildflower is another person's weed. Time for some definitions:

"Natives" are considered plants indigenous to North America before European settlement.

"Weeds" are any plants growing out of place.

A "forb" is a wildflower that grows without human involvement.

"Naturalized aliens" are plants that have taken hold in certain areas but that should be avoided because they crowd out and contaminate native gene pools. (Queen Anne's lace, chicory, and oxeye daisy are some naturalized aliens.)

"Common milkweed is on Ontario's noxious weeds list, yet several (provincial) departments purchase milkweeds from us to support the monarchs," Ms. Goldberger said. "This weeds-wildflower debate needs a little more thinking and a little more homework as people gain knowledge about natural relationships."